I feel like I’ve been in a learning desert for a while. If you’ve spoken to me in the last few months or read any of my posts about teacher’s college, you know that I have been struggling to stay positive about my future in education. Don’t get me wrong, I want to be a teacher more than ever before, and I think I’ll be damn good at it if given the opportunity (Ahem, potential employers: PRETTY PLEASE GIVE ME THE OPPORTUNITY!). Most of my inspiration lately has come not from my courses (which ended last week!) but from the amazing exchanges and ideas I’ve been witnessing through my growing online networks.
I try to find the time and energy to get involved in some of the educational moments taking place around Toronto. Today was one of those instances, and it was truly refreshing. The Canadian Centre for Diversity’s Young Leader’s Forum was like a glass of lemonade for my soul. I’ve volunteered as a facilitator for the YLF for a couple of years now, and I always leave feeling energized, optimistic and inspired by the young people that I meet.
A quick overview of the YLF: Schools from the GTA and beyond send 6-8 delegates to a conference centre in downtown Toronto for a day of learning and dialogue. Students come together with the common purpose of working together to combat stigma and discrimination. This year’s theme was “That’s so…HATE.” The day begins with a panel of young people who have experienced discrimination, sharing their stories and openly fielding questions from the audience and from the moderator. I missed the morning session this year, but in previous years, I have always been moved by how honest the Q&A is and by how much both panelists and audience members are willing to share with a roomful of strangers. After lunch there is an interactive improv performance from Toronto Playback Theatre, and then the group breaks up into small workshops. I was responsible for facilitating one of these workshops with 12 students, each one from a different school. My group included public and private schools, faith-based and secular, urban and rural. Students ranged from grades 9-12, and came from different ethnic, socio-economic, cultural and religious backgrounds.
My co-facilitator this year was a superstar – Ziadh Rabbani – a recent university grad, artist, and food security enthusiast. During one of our activities, Ziadh told the group that in Arabic, his name means abundance. The group agreed that his personality reflects his name’s meaning – he brought his overflowing energy and enthusiasm to the table, and I would be happy to work with him again in the future.
The CCD provides each workshop group with a number of engagement strategies to choose from that provoke reflection, dialogue, debate, and open questioning. After going over (and putting our signatures on) the norms and creating a safe and positive space, we asked students to partner up based on any commonality and get to know each other. The partnerships they formed were based on a number of different commonalities – one pair looked at each other and said, “I’m brown. You’re brown. Let’s talk,” and another chatted about music, while yet another discovered they were both into science. They then conducted a 3-question interview, sharing their names, something they are proud of, and something quirky about themselves.
We used the “Extended Nametag” activity, which led to discussions about labeling, bullying, exclusion, and the challenges of creating a diverse and equitable society. To wrap up, students were given a poem template (with prompts like “I am…I feel…I worry…I wonder…”). This provided the most moving moment of my afternoon, wherein a girl broke down in tears before reading her poem, sharing with the group that she had overcome an eating disorder and was worried that her struggles might not be behind her for good. Her poem was spare and heartfelt, and she read it while choking back tears. The group’s reaction was amazing – there were hugs, tissues offered, hands held – all this from a group that just met two hours earlier.
The YLF reminds me of what is possible in education. As a teacher, I’ll do my best to push the curriculum (and the desks) aside once in a while and make space for those important moments where students can talk about what really matters to them. Young people are so optimistic about their ability to change the world, and when you hear them speak, it’s hard not to agree with them. I feel refreshed and ready to being my internship on a positive note. Thanks for the spiritual lemonade, kids!